Authorities in the Chinese capital have detained 10 eviction protesters after they staged a protest in Tiananmen Square, kneeling en masse in front of the portrait of late supreme leader Mao Zedong.
The protesters, residents of a rural district on the outskirts of Beijing, were given a five-day administrative sentence on Friday, relatives said.
"They went to kneel on the Jinshui Bridge [below the portrait on Tiananmen gate], and they were detained," Zhou Jie, the son of detained protester Huang Yuliu, told RFA's Mandarin service. "There were 10 people in total, five of whom had already been threatened [by the authorities.]"
"They were detained on Friday evening at 6:00 p.m.," Zhou said. "We were informed [on Monday] that they had been placed under administrative detention for five days."
He said the five who had received threats hadn't been evicted yet, but had posted an 'ultimatum' notice to the authorities at the doorway of their home.
"The other five were two married couples who had already been evicted and their homes demolished, and the other person was my mother," said Zhou, whose home in Fengtai district's Shiliuzhuang village has already been demolished.
Evictions and demolitions
Zhou said the protesters had thought of a protest in front of the Mao portrait, the symbol of communist rule in China and an unofficial icon for the poor and oppressed, after all their previous attempts to complain about the evictions and demolitions had led nowhere.
"They really couldn't get anyone to help them," he said. "After we were evicted and our homes demolished, we reported it to the police, but they wouldn't do anything."
Shiliuzhuang villagers have been complaining for months that they have been illegally evicted from their homes to make way for a property development.
While some have been allocated temporary accommodation, they say that their new homes have no leasehold or ownership rights, rendering them vulnerable to further eviction, and are of very poor quality.
In April, they marched to local government offices to protest against attacks from government-backed thugs on their property amid a long-running dispute over the use of local land for development.
According to local sources at the time, the villagers are accusing the government of murky links with a local property developer, which has cleared homes to make way for an illegal construction project.
Zhou said the demolition gang had buried his belongings, worth an estimated 100,000 yuan (U.S. $16,000), under a pile of rubble.
A relative of a second protester, Song Zhenming, said the protesters were given their sentence for "illegal petitioning."
"They went for a walk over at Tiananmen Square, but they were told that they weren't following administrative procedures for petitioning," said the relative, surnamed Zhang. "We haven't had any sort of notification, even though they have been detained."
"The police station only told us [on Sunday, verbally]," he said.
Zhang said Song's relatives had tried to visit him in the Fengtai district detention center, but had been denied permission to see him.
"They said they definitely wouldn't be held for more than five days," he said.
"They went there because they were unhappy because they have lost their homes," Zhang said. "They wanted to see the Chairman's portrait and kneel down before the Chairman."
"Then they were detained."
China's ruling Communist Party typically retaliates harshly against anyone using the Mao portrait as the focus of a protest, because it represents an attack on the founding supreme leader of the People's Republic.
Three protesters who helped splatter Mao’s portrait with red paint during the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement all served lengthy prison sentences, during which they were subjected to torture and ill-treatment.
The three—Yu Dongyue, Yu Zhijian, and Lu Decheng—have since fled into exile, where they still suffer physically and mentally from the legacy of their punishment.
Chinese authorities routinely disperse petitioners who gather to sing revolutionary songs from the Mao era, which have become the unofficial anthems of China's army of petitioners, many of whom have pursued complaints against the government for many years, to no avail.
In China, all land is ultimately owned by the state, but is allocated to communities under collective contract and through the household responsibility system that replaced state-run farms and communes under late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping.
Land acquisition for development, often resulting in lucrative property deals for local officials, sparks thousands of protests by local communities across China every month, many of which escalate into clashes with police.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.